Richard Petty’s dominance and Darrell Waltrip’s great run of success ultimately gave way to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson’s modern-day records of triumph on the half-mile “paperclip” Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. And for all of its competitive challenges, Martinsville boasts a rare combination of sporting popularity – adored by fan and driver, alike.
From the iconic Martinsville hot dogs served at concession stands on the property, to the high drama on track – from Red Byron’s three-lap victory in the inaugural Martinsville NASCAR premier series race in 1949 to Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon” last-lap, wall-hugging move to earn a position in the 2022 Championship 4 Round last Fall - so much of the action at Martinsville Speedway has become the stuff of NASCAR legend.
There are a certain few race tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule that have not only survived the test of time, but provided hugely significant moments and milestones in the 75-year history of the sport. Martinsville Speedway, which hosts the NOCO 400 Sunday (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is unquestionably in that category.
It’s been hailed the “Half Mile of Mayhem” but generally known as “The Paperclip” for its long straightaways and tight, slightly banked corners. It’s bright red “Martinsville Hot Dogs” – topped with mustard, chili, slaw and onions – are as famous as its one-of-a-kind trophy, the grandfather clock.
It is the only current venue that has been on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule since NASCAR began and this week will host its 149th premier race.
“It was important to win that race and of course, I loved that track," NASCAR Hall of Famer and 11-time Martinsville winner Darrell Waltrip said of his great success there. “It just meant the world to me to win there.
“Those clocks are special. With the Azealia bushes that used to be there and parking on the back straightaway with the coaches, it’s evolved, but it’s still Martinsville, same old race track.”
Waltrip recalled a certain open-wheel champion, who was set to make his Martinsville debut, figuring the half-miler was going to be “easy” compared to larger tracks on the NASCAR schedule.
“I remember Juan Montoya went there and he said, ‘this place looks like a piece of cake’ and he went out and nearly wrecked and came back in and said, ‘well it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be,’ Waltrip said with a laugh.
“He told me one thing I always thought was a great observation, ‘in like a lamb and off like a lion.’ It looks easy, two long straightaways and two loops, it’s a paperclip. But it’s probably one of the most difficult tracks you’ll ever go to."
That may explain a Martinsville trend. For generations, when a driver figured out how to win at Martinsville, he won so much the clocks filled their homes.
Twelve drivers have won back-to-back races at Martinsville with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson doing it three different times. Seven drivers have won three consecutive races at Martinsville, including current driver Denny Hamlin (2009-10).
NASCAR’s ‘King’ Richard Petty holds the all-time record for wins (15) and starts (67) at Martinsville. Waltrip’s 11 trophies makes him the only other driver with double digit victories and his eight pole positions are most ever.
Former Hendrick Motorsports teammates Gordon and Johnson each have nine wins at Martinsville. The Hall of Famer Gordon has an incredible mark of 38 top-10 finishes in 47 Martinsville starts – 80.8 percent of the time he took the green flag, he finished among the top-10. Johnson leads all drivers with three victories from pole position.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace has seven Martinsville wins while fellow Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt have six each. Morgan Shephard and the late John Andretti scored their first (Shephard) and final (Andretti) career wins at the track.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin leads all active drivers with five Martinsville grandfather clocks to his name; the Virginia-raised driver winning three straight in the 2009-10 seasons. His JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. has three victories and is the last driver to win back-to-back Martinsville races (2019-2020).
Gordon, now an executive with Hendrick Motorsports, concedes it took a lot of work to learn the track and the art of victory there. He remembers his team making change after change to the car during the old days of testing, hoping to improve his lap times. But ultimately, he said, “I realized maybe I need to start trying something different."
“At one particular test, I can’t remember when exactly, all of a sudden something clicked and the next race we went to after that, I don’t know if we won it, but I remember going, ‘aha.’ I’d found something that was working.
“Because Martinsville is a track where aerodynamics aren’t as important and horsepower is not as important and it’s a track where over the years it’s changed the least amount – up until this new car - if you found something you could do in your setup or driving, it would last and typically work most of the time," Gordon continued. “Even if a tire changed or something, it didn’t change so drastically, you could still apply what you learned, and the team learned. You might have to adjust a little bit here and there and make it last a long time. For me, I was fortunate, I was able to make it work for a while."
Indeed, he did. And that kind of dedication to craft is something Waltrip whole-heartedly agrees made all the difference at Martinsville.
“It’s a drivers track," Waltrip said. “You don’t have to have the best car, you just have to be the best driver.
“It takes a lot of finesse and 500 laps around that joint, is a lot of laps so you have to learn how to pace yourself, what your car is capable of, know you’ll have chances to work on the car and make it better. It’s a race with a lot of strategy – it might not look like It, it looks like a short track where you beat and bang, but it’s a race with a lot of strategy and I think the best driver always wins the races."
Although, arguably, it’s the fans that walk away the biggest winners. It’s no easy feat for a facility to stand the test of time and Martinsville Speedway certainly has.
“Thankfully, it’s the fans that make that happen," Gordon said. “Fans enjoy what they’re seeing and like the environment and the nostalgia of it.
“You see the incredible action it creates. In order to make a pass, you have to be daring and take risks. And when you do that, you might make a mistake and that mistake might turn into something that gets people on their feet. So, I get it.”